As other tortured franchises find success, Pirates' slide continues
In early July when the Pirates were one of the big stories in baseball, another overachieving club picked to finish near the bottom of its division found itself lurking near the top.
But Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter advised caution about getting carried away too soon.
“It's a long season,” he texted to a reporter. “All things good and bad will be exposed in the Major Leagues.”
He spoke of his club, but he could have been talking about the Pirates.
Now it's October, and the Orioles finished strong, reaching the playoffs after 14 years of losing. Two other teams with bleak pasts — the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals — advanced to the postseason.
Not the Pirates, whose shortcomings were exposed during the past 7½ weeks.
From a perch 16 games above .500 on Aug. 8, the Oblivion Express began a steep descent and gained speed, lurching out of control before jumping the rails with Sunday's loss to Cincinnati at PNC Park. That extended the longest losing streak in the history of North American team sports to a fat, round, appalling 20 years.
“They don't call it a grind for nothing,” MLB Network analyst and former player Sean Casey said. “You find out what you've really got after six months.”
Baltimore's previous winning season was in 1997, but Orioles fans don't care about that now. Guided by Showalter's skilled hand, their team plays better than statistics might indicate. Oakland general manager Billy Beane is producing Moneyball II, molding a winner from the lowest payroll in the majors. Washington GM Mike Rizzo spent the past few years building a club that won the National League East after averaging 93 losses over the six prior seasons.
Yet the Pirates' losing streak continued. Manager Clint Hurdle said it's frustrating and encouraging that these former have-nots — but not his club — managed to turn things around.
“You need to be realistic and optimistic,” Hurdle said. “It's a disappointment, definitely. We were right there along with those clubs. They finished. We didn't finish.”
No longer terrible, the Pirates are mediocre, their 79-83 final record shows.
Hurdle, who steered a 22-game improvement since taking over after the 57-105 travesty of 2010, is encouraged “because the game is proving itself out to be, still, a game where you execute well over a long period of time, you're gonna have a chance to get in,” he said. “And it's not just big-money markets. ... The pitching for the most part has carried them, consistently.”
Casey, who grew up in Upper St. Clair and played for the Pirates and other teams, said of his old club: “I feel like they're going in the right direction.”
With relatively modest payrolls, Baltimore and Washington spent about $25 million to $30 million more than the Pirates' $61 million. Both clubs, and Oakland, wisely built from outside and within. Luck helps, too. After losing 102 and 103 games back-to-back, the Nationals got to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
The Pirates invested heavily in scouting and the draft, but the payoff has not arrived. Other than pitcher A.J. Burnett, notable player acquisitions have been rare. Absent front office exceptionalism, finances remain an issue, a story for 20 years. The team's payroll remains in the bottom five.
“It's a challenge,” said Detroit Tigers coach Gene Lamont, who managed the Pirates from 1997 through 2000. “You think you can conquer, you think you can do it. But in today's game, it's tough if you're not gonna spend any money.”
Other Pirates managers hampered by limited resources over two decades: Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy, John Russell and, of course, Jim Leyland, who again has the big-spending Tigers in the playoffs. Leyland managed the Pirates to three straight postseason appearances before quitting after the 1996 season when it became obvious that the club, then owned by Kevin McClatchy, could not compete financially and on the field.
“I was at the point in my career where I didn't want to go to the park knowing everything had to go perfect for us to win,” Leyland said. “That was the way it was gonna be.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7810.